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Ken Welch vows to bolster the arts and diversity as St. Petersburg's first African American mayor

Ken Welch is sworn in as mayor by his daughter, Kenya Welch
City of St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch is sworn into office with daughter Kenya Welch holding the bible on Jan. 6, 2022.

The incoming mayor honored his history as the son of a former city councilman and as a longtime resident.

Though St. Petersburg could not gather in person to watch Ken Welch be sworn in as the city’s first African American mayor, a virtual ceremony Thursday honored the mayor’s roots as a native while he looked to the city's future.

Plans to hold Welch's inauguration on the steps of city hall had to be scrapped after he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. So he was sworn in outside his home with his hand on a bible held by his daughter, Kenya.

The incoming mayor honored his history as the son of a former city councilman and as a longtime resident.

READ: Transcript of new St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch's inauguration speech

Welch, spoke from his home about his roots growing up in the Gas Plant neighborhood, which was torn down to build Tropicana Field, and attending the final segregated classes at Melrose Elementary School.

"This is a significant moment for many reasons,” he said. “It represents the breaking of another barrier. As a child growing up in the Civil Rights era, I grew up in the areas of our city where my family lived not by choice, but by sanctioned discriminatory practices that defined where African Americans could live in our city."

But last year, Welch returned to Melrose in a full-circle moment as the city's mayor-elect. He later told reporters some students said they hoped to be mayor one day too.

Welch spoke of his commitment to create a more equitable city for all residents, to bolster the arts community and bring leaders together to discuss the future of the Tampa Bay Rays in the city. He said he recognized the significance of the moment, but focused on the work he plans to do while in office.

"So yes, this election is historic,” Welch said. “But our goal is not to simply make history. Rather we must work together to make a difference to make an impact for this generation, and for generations to come. Our collective vision will define what progress looks like for our entire city."

One of the city’s key problems Welch plans to focus on is housing.

“The issue of housing demands a higher level of focus,” he said. "For example, St. Petersburg in the Tampa Bay area experienced a 24% increase in apartment rental costs just last year, the highest rate of increase in the nation.”

He announced the creation of an Office of Strategic Initiatives to focus on creating and preserving affordable housing, among other issues. Welch named former Neighborhood Affairs Administrator Rob Gerdes to the role of Assistant Administrator for Strategic Initiatives.

Also among his appointments were Stephanie Owens as the city’s Deputy Mayor and Chief of Policy and Tom Greene as interim city administrator.

Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.